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What makes a champion? Masterclass with Wayne Gretzky

By Rodrigo Verney, September 14 2021—

What moulds a person into a champion? Is it medals and trophies? Is it natural abilities? Individual accolades?  A cascade of lucky events? Are they made or are they born a champion? These questions have passed every athlete’s mind at one point  — when they go to sleep, when they give everything and still lose, when the weight just gets too heavy or when they start to wonder if it’s just not meant to be. 

In a recent masterclass, Wayne Gretzky, the best hockey player to ever skate the ice, shared with the world what it took to have a dominant mentality. It’s sufficient to say that it is an enormous privilege to be able to delve into the mind of such an influential player — to be able to understand how he approaches the game is necessary to grow into an effective player. You can always work on your body to be more physically fit but if your mind isn’t up to the challenge, you will never be able to ascend as an athlete. 

I have had the pleasure of listening to his approach to the game throughout the last couple of weeks. I want to present to you the most important lessons Gretzky has to offer so that you can use those ideas in every situation of your life. His lessons about mentality reflect a deeper knowledge that applies to so many situations beyond arenas. The lessons I will be sharing reflect a way of life, a drive to achieve your goals and the sacrifices one has to make to reach the best version of themselves.

Being a champion is not only about dedication or about the workouts and the sleepless nights. Being a true champion is about knowing that the path to our goals is dark and uncharted. Many have walked this road before but only you alone can walk the trail ahead.  Being a champion isn’t about winning the big game or making the final shot– it’s about giving everything you have at each step of the way. It’s to respect the game and work on every rough corner you can find. It’s to understand that no matter what we do, we have the peace of mind to say, “I am here and I won’t budge.” That is the difference between a winner and a champion — mentality.

I can’t deny that going into it, I had some concerns. The Masterclass logo has already established itself as a stamp of quality in today’s media. However, a class can only be as good as the teacher. So, I held fear in the back of my mind that such a topic wouldn’t translate well on paper. Don’t get me wrong, explaining a player’s mentality has been done already in marvellous fashion. Kobe Bryant’s The Mamba Mentality and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story are examples of it and good reads for anyone looking to better themselves mentally. However, to teach a Masterclass means to work with many different departments, hence the author’s vision may be subordinate to the restraints of the format.

Luckily, that wasn’t the case. Gretzky has an outstanding way of teaching his class. His language, combined with his soothing manner of speaking helps articulate his message without leaving us with any major doubts. His use of real-life stories and anecdotes helps ground his teachings. Overall, there is a sense of chatting with Gretzky first and being taught a class second. This makes you loosen up and binge the whole class in one sitting. With every class being on average six minutes long, you will breeze through the course without realizing it.

Gretzky based the fundamentals on a lot of his life experiences in this Masterclass. With a twenty-year hockey career and 60 National Hockey League (NHL) records, it’s hard not to. The whole class is divided into sections of his career. We first visit the young Gretzky and his first contact with the sport he loves. From there, we head on to the years he was playing in the NHL. The last story arc is about his golden age as a player and his championship reign. Finally, the last two lessons are about his post-hockey endeavours and some closing considerations. This totals to a runtime of two hours and seven minutes divided into 19 videos and a 21-page workbook that features the summaries of his lessons and stages of life. 

For starters, the first part digs under Gretzky’s skin as it delves into how his character was developed at a young age. He talks about how he was introduced to the game while shooting pucks in his backyard when he was four. From there, his passion grew into a serious hobby as he got older. Gretzky shared some videos of him training in his youth while he talked about the lessons he learned along the way. This is a crucial point in his course and his path to pursuing his favourite sport is perfectly encapsulated and explored. It sets the tone for the rest of the course while being the longest section with seven episodes. It teaches you how you can work on your passion without the need for the fanciest equipment and how you need to play with people that will challenge you daily. It goes way beyond that, as it discusses how creativity is crucial or what a good role model is and how they should inspire you.

The second part reflects Gretzky’s early career while some highlights play in the forefront. It goes on to talk about his endeavours with the Indianapolis Racers, to being traded to the Edmonton Oilers and his growth as a player in that period. You will learn how to set an attainable goal, the importance of professionalism, what makes a championship team and how to find your place in a new environment.

In the third part, Gretzky talks about his glorious years as a champion while some unseen footage plays. Listening to him talk about the highest point in his career is very engaging. He has a way of making you just as excited as he is about his accolades. However, this part is very specific, as he goes on to talk about how you should behave when you are an NHL champion, which is maybe not a sentiment many of us will share. Regardless, there are some interesting insights on how to have a strong champion’s mindset. 

The last part has a sense of closure. He goes on to talk about how a healthy balance can increase a player’s longevity and what to do once you are past the prime of your body. It talks about looking forward in your life and understanding when to let go. It is really dense and shows how a champion’s mentality isn’t something that only applies to the field. It doesn’t matter how great you are as there will be a time when stopping will be the next logical step. When this moment comes, it will take a strong-minded person to accept it.

A perfect way to end a class that transcends the topic beyond how to evolve as an athlete– It is a class about how to be a better person.

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